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DANCING WITH GHOSTS – Photo by Nancy Hoffman

Thomas Wolfe famously said “You can’t go home again.” And he was right. You can’t go home again because home has changed, the people have changed, the places have changed and you have changed as well. Home is not the same place you left, and you are not the same person who left there.

But you can go back to a place, a place where you once lived, and conjure up the people who were once part of your life there and of the child you once were and who once was part of the place and the community.

I was conjuring big time last week during a visit to my home town of St. Petersburg, Florida. There was a time, right after World War II, when I was just a little kid, and my mother and father were still in their 20s, and they were young and happy and looking forward to making more babies and getting on with their lives.

It was different being a kid back then, and I had learned the rules early on: Children were made to be seen, not heard.

That meant you could stick around and watch and listen, but you couldn’t interrupt the grownups and when you were addressed, you said “yes sir” or “yes ma’am,” and you never, ever talked back unless you wanted your fanny slapped. It wasn’t a bad system because when you listened to adults, you learned about being an adult and about the world outside your immediate family.


My dad’s younger brother, Henry Cunningham was also back from the war. He had married my Aunt May, and they lived down the street. The four of them would go out dancing together, and I would get to listen to their stories when they came home. One of their places was the Gulfport Casino. It wasn’t a gambling casino, but rather, it was a casino in the original sense, a sort of community center, where people could get together to socialize and hold special events. Every week, there would be dances at the Casino and sometimes my parents and my uncle and aunt would go there to dance.

Gulfport at the time was a little working-class community with a population of fishermen, boatwrights, carpenters, painters, mechanics and other blue-collar folks. Good people, but generally not very sophisticated. My parents and my aunt and uncle would come home after these dances and laugh about what they called the “Gulfport Pump Handle.” They would dance around, with one arm around the other’s waist and the opposite arms extended straight out, hands joined, pumping up and down to the music.

Then they would laugh, and I would laugh too, although I had never been to a dance and had no idea how you were supposed to do it. As a matter of fact, I still don’t.

Those were happy years for my mother and father and for my aunt and uncle, and as the oldest of my generation I was soaking it all in. Sometimes, if I had been good, I was allowed to go along with the adults to a place called Johnny’s – a little coffee shop out in the sticks north of town. I think my dad knew Johnny from the war or maybe he was a pal of my Uncle Hank’s.

The adults would talk about life and the world as they ate their food, and when they were finished, they would light up cigarettes and talk about their plans and hopes for the future, then they’d snub the smokes out in the plates with the left-over food. I would listen and learn, and think about how I would act when I became a grownup – although at that stage of life, being an adult seemed so far in the future that it was more a concept than a reality. Kind of like going to heaven or getting on a spaceship and flying to the moon.

My mom and my aunt were both full of life and happy to be out in the world with their husbands. It was a nice time for them and for me, but such times always end. My mother and father separated some years later, and he died of pancreatic cancer in 1965. My Uncle Henry died in 1986, my mother in 2001, and my Aunt May in 2013.

Thomas Wolfe was correct. You really can’t go home again. But you can take a moment to stop and remember what once was and what will never be again.

It’s a sweet thing to do on a sunny afternoon in Gulfport, Florida, but it’s a sad thing as well.

George Lee Cunningham

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